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A Moving Target

PULL!! Synthesizing all the instructions at once, you secure the shotgun in the meaty intersection between your shoulder and your collarbone, lift your right elbow high, elevate the front of the gun with your left hand effortlessly without gripping, make sure the safety is off and a 12 gauge shell is loaded, lean forward on your left leg nearly floating your right behind you, place your cheek gently against the side of the gun, keep your head up and both eyes open while looking down the barrel with your left eye focused for the target, breathe steadily and calm your nerves, watch as the bright orange clay disc rockets out of one of eight houses into the sky arcing perfectly over the woods, catching air and then you shoot where it's headed and not where it is at just the right moment... and BAM! 

I spent three consecutive summers at a Y camp in North Carolina (from age 12 to 14), where, during the course of three weeks each summer, I learned how to water ski, sail, slow dance and shoot a rifle. In short order each summer, I earned the coveted "Pro Marksman" title after laying on the well worn wood at the range in the heat day after day, rifle at my shoulder, popping ammunition shells out of the chamber like candy until the black center my clotheslined paper target looked like a mouse had chewed it up and spit it out. Shooting a rifle, or any gun for that matter, was an unusual assignment for me. It still is. I guess I don't really consider myself a gun person. I would never keep a gun in my home for protection and I don't hunt. That said, shooting a gun is a thrill. And knowing how to do it right is a must. 

Deep in the woods up winding country roads not too far from the Delaware River, you find yourself at Catskill Pheasantry in Long Eddy, NY, a bare bones camp, with bunk houses and an office in the middle of a 349-acre property with four year-round target shooting stations and fields where you can hunt pheasant and chuckers (smaller and faster than pheasants) from September 1 to April 15. When we first drove up, I met a man who was bringing his dogs, a potpourri of setters, for some hunting skills practice where they basically learn to suppress their natural instincts in the presence of overwhelming temptation. The dogs are supposed to sit quietly in the brush and wait for their master's command as the birds leave their nests, fly, are shot and fall back down into the brush. Only when the master releases the dogs are they supposed to retrieve the birds. Many fail once the birds fly out. It's just too much excitement. He confessed to being terrible at training his dogs, but I figure he has until September to get it right.

If you have never shot a gun before, Jeremy is your man. Even if you have, he is the one you want teaching you how to do it right. He cares. Jeremy has two rules: safety and form. He says, "I don't care if you don't hit a target, as long as you are shooting right." But he does care and he will help you get the hit you came for. He stands at your side, guiding gently, adjusting your right shoulder, pushing you forward, reminding you to keep your gun tip up. He coaches quietly and when you hit the clay, he repeats "Dead bird." He reminds us that, "In reality, dead is dead." so even when you only hit a chip off your target, that's it.

Catskill Pheasantry and Clays has been around since the 1977 and gained its assortment of humble buildings in the mid '80s. Jeremy has been there for 11 years, just half of his married life, teaching newbies how to use a gun and taking other, more experienced folks on guided field hunts. Apparently, the Red-Tailed Hawks are dialed in on the pheasant hunts and will pick off any birds you are unable to shoot quickly, an added challenge to the course. The clay courses don't have any hawks waiting nearby, but some birds did fly through the range, unknowingly risking their lives. The Pheasantry has four shooting ranges. We started on the Huntsman to warm up and then moved on to the covered Five Stand, where five shooting stations give you eight different clay patterns. I think this is where most people meet their match. The clays look deceptively simple to hit, but once you add a gun to the mix, the intended success of projectile meeting projectile in a moving pattern is far from easy. If you master the Five Stand, there's a sort of a shooting golf range where you keep score for ten holes with various clay challenges. Maybe next time.

To begin, Jeremy introduces us to three kinds of shotguns: the over and under, a 20 gauge and a 12 gauge (both manual and semiautomatic). The over and under is a common shotgun, and although we will not be using it, Jeremy wants to be sure we are familiar with it. The over and under has the most "felt recoil" of any shotgun because of the stacked chambers. "Felt recoil" is something you want to minimize if you are interested in using your right arm the next day. The nice feature of the over and under is that it splits in the middle to load, as if you have broken it in half like a brittle branch over your knee, and is thus the most obvious to tell when it is not engaged. The other shotguns have cylinders that slide forward and back on the gun shaft to load new shells and to pop out old ones. This action is fun, like playing an outlaw in the movies, but less obvious to tell when it's loaded and ready to shoot.

It's counterintuitive for me to remember that a 12 gauge is stronger than a 20 gauge, but it is. Gauge is the measurement of the inner diameter of the gun's barrel and is determined by the weight of a lead sphere that fits inside it, communicated in fractions of a pound. Thus a 12 gauge fits a lead ball that weighs one twelfth of a pound. The smaller the barrel the more force it uses to project its ammunition. Gauge is an historic measurement... we're not using lead balls any more. Instead we use shotgun shells: yellow 20 gauge and green 12 gauge. The shell is metal at one end, silver with a small gold dot in the center, with a plastic hull that holds the rest. The gun's piston, when fired, hits the gold dot and ignites the shell's powder in the next layer, which in turn pushes the wad forward onto the shot, then propelled into the sky toward your target. The wad is a stabilizer, intended to push the shot out uniformly. When you are shooting, you can see the wad floating in the air and descending just before the target is hit. The expression "you shot your wad," originally referring to this material inside a shotgun shell, means "you have done all you can do." All I know is that "stronger" means more "felt recoil" and the 12-gauge definitely packs more punch. If you have skinny shoulders like I do, go for the 20 gauge.

Jeremy shoots 1000 rounds a day on most days. After our group of 7 tried their hand at shooting, we asked him to show us how it is really done. His assistant, Dakota, who's been there for about 7 months and is still not used to the winding country roads up to the range, mocked Jeremy insisting he could not hit the #7 clay. Jeremy is short and strong with a belly that anchors him solidly in place, an asset for someone dealing with the impact of perpetual "felt recoil." He's purposeful in his stance, relaxed and even graceful as he smashes the first projectile, reloads and obliterates the second, finishing his round with a swift and jovial bird in Dakota's direction, this time not a clay one.

Nothing could be more political than the right to bear arms and the conversations around appropriate gun control. I have a feeling that if Jeremy had anything to do with it, the decision makers would get some proper training first. He's serious about gun safety and I imagine that he'd be a good national advocate for anyone wanting a gun license needing some mandatory lessons on safety and form first.

We end our day with most everyone having hit a target and some hitting many. Others pushed the clay triggers on the "Pull!" command as part of the game. Shooting affects people differently in a range between elation and trepidation. For some, the nerves are impossible to quell. At the end of the morning, we all left with a healthy respect for guns, some personal accomplishments and a baseball cap badge of honor for having shared the Pheasantry with Jeremy. 

Pull! Dead bird! XOXO farmgirl

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